Hungry at Hedgebrook

The Whidbey Island retreat feeds the writer’s stomach and soul— and with their new cookbook, yours too.

It’s a short drive from the ferry terminal on Whidbey Island to my turn onto Useless Bay Avenue. Another minute or two and I pull into a driveway up to a small farmhouse with views of the water. A fresh-faced woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat and holding a big metal bowl asks me if I’m one of the writers. She smiles, tells me to park next to a small barn where lavender and garlic hang to dry, and trots off to pick the last of the season’s blackberries from the garden.

I’ve arrived at Hedgebrook, the 48-acre forested writer’s retreat for women that has housed the likes of Gloria Steinem, Carolyn Forché, Karen Joy Fowler, Dorothy Allison, Monique Truong, and thousands of other emerging and renowned poets, novelists, playwrights, and memoirists.

It’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and in conjunction has released the Hedgebrook Cookbook (She Writes Press)—a celebration of the food served over the years, which has proved to be as storied as the women and the retreat’s wondrous grounds. It’s the food that I’ve come to experience, particularly the communal supper in the farmhouse where six writers-in-residence and the cooks break bread together each night at 5:30. I’ve already cheated and spoken with best-selling Bainbridge Island author Claire Dederer, so I think I have some sense of what to expect. She tells me about her first time at Hedgebrook, when she was writing her memoir Poser.

“I didn’t want to have communal dinner. I just wanted my own time. I cranked out a lot that first day, and I resented having to go down there. But I sat down at the table and I saw Sherri Smith, and I could see all of my anxiety and craziness in her eyes, and we just started laughing. And we had some great meal that Denise made.

“They’re so generous with the food, that it makes people at the table feel more generous with their conversations.”

Karen Joy Fowler, best-selling author of We Are All Beside Ourselves, echoes that. “If you’ve been writing all day, you’ve often let down your guard in certain ways. You’re ready to be who you are.”

This generosity and openness is the guiding philosophy behind Hedgebrook. As Gloria Steinem describes it in the cookbook: “It’s as if women took our 5,000 years or so of nurturing experience, and turned it on each other.” It’s what moms like Dederer and so many other writers who’ve written about Hedgebrook emphasize: It’s a haven where you’re freed of the responsibilities of child care, cleaning, and cooking so that you can focus on your writing. Each night, writers go to the farmhouse refrigerator and retrieve the next day’s lunch, specially prepared for them with care. It’s invariably something wholesome and delicious, like thick slices of bread; a chunk of a good Cheddar or Cambozola; a Mason jar filled with carrot chipotle soup (to be reheated on your single hot plate the next day); a baggie with salad greens picked from the garden and a little cup of some housemade vinaigrette, maybe honey-mint or Asian ginger.

Should you get hungry between meals or need a break, the farmhouse has a snack shelf full of big jars of dried fruits from the garden (white peaches, figs, and apricots when I was there), candied ginger, vegan granola, nuts and other goodies, and a never-empty cookie jar. “The jar is very important,” says Dederer, “the locus of positive feelings. You can check out the cookies and chat with the chefs—that’s what you do during the day when you’re not working.”

For the chefs, providing a social center, a hub of release, is almost as important a role as the actual cooking. Denise Barr, the house chef for the past five years, and chef Julie Rosten were artists themselves (Julie did the illustrations in the cookbook) and close friends before coming to Hedgebrook. They look like they could be sisters, with their long gray hair swept up into elaborate buns, their glasses framing full, white faces, their quiet ease as they move around each other in the kitchen. As the cook, “you’re the person to trust, the mom, the grandma, the aunt,” says Barr. “Some of the writers who are older than me call me Mom.” They join the table in large part to relax the women, since so many of them are used to being the ones up serving and cleaning.

Barr grew up influenced by cooking with her Nana and her aunt (“as they laughed out loud trying to unmold a Jell-O salad in the warm water of the sink”), and brings that sense of familial love and comfort to the table. Rosten compliments her by adding her passion for ethnic foods; she married into a Chinese-American family and talks about the times she’s gone out of her way to create a dish for a writer from afar, like the Jollof rice she made to accompany her root-vegetable curry when a Nigerian writer was hungry for her native food, or a 10-hour pho stock she made with the help of a Vietnamese writer.

I ask them how they approach a meal every night where six women may have different preferences, not to mention allergies. While they strive to feed everyone well, Barr says, they don’t go crazy making several meals. They make one meal, but provide mini-substitutions when necessary. The choice is often guided by the garden. Julie walks the garden in the morning and talks to Cathy, the gardener who first greeted me. They check the fridge to see what they have, and they refer frequently to the “food diary,” where notes about all the writers’ eating habits have been collected through the years. Also, before coming to Hedgebrook, you’re mailed a form that asks not just about your food allergies or intolerances, but about your comfort foods. When Dederer came, she wrote that after serving so many meals to young children who notoriously like their foods separated, she wanted all her food to touch. She got lots of pastas and stews.

The night of my meal, they’re serving their Vietnamese noodle salad bowls with shrimp. To account for a fish allergy, a plate of braised tofu is brought out along with the shrimp. The bowl is gigantic, the rice noodles topped with shredded carrots, scallions, cucumber, chopped basil, peanuts, and bean sprouts. The shrimp is marinated in a curry-powder, fish-sauce, lemongrass, ginger-garlic goodness. I’m sitting with an older, venerable poet, an internationally bestselling nonfiction writer, a screenplay writer, another poet—and of course Denise and Julie. The tall poet has been here many times (and at the first retreat in 1988), and keeps the conversation flowing. She tells us about an orgy of mating dragonflies she witnessed that day. “They were getting it on—on my lunch!” she exclaims.

I steer the conversation to food, and she blurts out “the Forbidden Rice Pudding.” The mention of the pudding instantly enlivens the faces of a couple other writers. The story goes that one night when the Forbidden Rice Pudding was served, all the women had fantastical dreams. One writer in particular, very shy, announced the next night that she’d dreamt she’d had sex with Osama Bin Laden and that he was a very gentle, expert lover. “Make love, not war” was how the writers interpreted that dream. (The pudding, sadly, didn’t make the cookbook, which skews toward those recipes most often requested by writers, like lavender shortbread or “Full Moonssaka,” not those inspiring wondrous dreams). We talk about other writers; mutual acquaintances; the great news that Ruth Ozeki’s novel has just been shortlisted for the Man Booker award—a book she’d been ready to burn in the bonfire before salvaging it here at Hedgebrook. Dessert is a sweet and tart galette made with the Italian plums from their trees (they also have apples and pears), lavender-honey ice cream (Steinem’s favorite), and a raspberry sorbet (also from their raspberry bushes).

After dinner, I gather my lunch, fill a jar with coffee and granola, stop by the garden to snip some dahlias, and head back through the woods, with its towering cedars, firs, and huge ferns, to my cabin, named Owl. I feel like Little Red Riding Hood, and, as a city dweller, am a tad anxious. So much silence and darkness. I pass the pile of alder wood, but decide I won’t need to make a fire tonight since the day was so warm. Back in my cabin I can see the light of my “sister” cabin, and feel reassured. In my sleeping loft, I pore over three of the 12 journals documenting the hundreds of women who’ve stayed in this very cabin. They are fascinating—long passages (handwritten in the ’80s, but typed, printed, and stapled into books in the post-’90s) about their experiences at Hedgebrook, their work, their fears and insecurities as a writer, their guilt, and their elation at escaping their families. And in nearly every entry is some mention of the food.

“It was the best chocolate cake I have ever tasted and I have eaten many in my life!”

“Julie our chef . . . created with food what great writers do with words.”

“I won’t forget these women. The chefs are nurturing creators themselves, and I just feel so grateful.”

“To the chefs, you are all quite simply GODDESSES.”

Over 25 years, the chefs, of course, have come and gone. But the consistency of lovingly crafted meals has endured—just as founder Nancy Nordhoff envisioned from the beginning. Though she’d originally imagined something simpler (“oatmeal cooking on the stove, bread in the oven, soup”) she’s hardly unhappy that the meals have become more elaborate.

Now 80, she walks me around the property, stopping to give details about a particular tree (she seems to know something about them all), checks whether huckleberries are ripening on one, points out white snowberries on another. Her passion is clearly for the land—and it’s the land, really, that feeds the writers who come here, from both the edible and the spiritual bounty it brings. I leave with a baggie of dried fruit, a cookie for my daughter, and a handful of miniature “hardy” kiwis that I’m told will ripen in a few days. Little bites of Hedgebrook to take back to Seattle.

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